It’s slightly hard to believe that it has been a year since the coronavirus pandemic abruptly upended our lives. For the restaurant industry, COVID-19 caused considerable damage, significantly impacting employment and sales. But finally, there seems to be light at the end of the tunnel. Vaccines are in high gear, including inoculations of restaurant workers. Restrictions are slowly dissipating, and dining rooms are reopening across the country. From the outside it would seem that restaurants are poised to benefit from a (much needed) return to “normal” and consumers’ pent-up desire to dine out. But there is one minor problem. Staffing. Owners across the country are struggling to fill vacancies.

Restaurants experiencing worker shortage in the face of an upswing in business
Yes. A staffing shortage seems a contradictory statement in a business that has been devastated by the pandemic. Not only did the industry experience mass layoffs and an alarming number of permanent closings, but they are reportedly at least 9 million Americans currently unemployed. While restaurant employment has risen each month this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, staffing levels at full-service restaurants in February were still 20% — or 1.1 million jobs — lower than a year ago. And it’s causing some real issues. Many restaurants have reported having to close for short periods of time due to being unable to find and hire staff to help with the recent increases in traffic. So where have all the workers gone?

There are a few reasons why staffing remains stubbornly low, with positions seemingly impossible to fill. Some owners and operators believe that its simple a case of intense competition for workers – due to restrictions being lift and businesses opening all at once there are simply many more job openings available at any given time than there are workers. But the numbers don’t really add up. If every person who was employed before the pandemic returned, then surely, intense competition or not, positions would be filled. There’s a little, if not a lot more, to it than that. Really, it’s a couple of factors all converging at once.

Like many other countries, the U.S. government provided support to employees affected by the pandemic. As a result, many former employees are choosing not to re-enter the work force simply because they are currently better off financially… by not working! Similarly, not all restrictions have been lifted equally, forcing some workers to stay at home – whether it might be because of childcare needs, or having to take care of elder loved ones. Others have left the restaurant business for better-paying jobs in other fields, further shrinking the pool of possible applicants. Greg Wright, 34, said he decided not to return to his job as a sous-chef at Marlow & Sons, in Brooklyn, soon after the shutdown last March. He has since moved to the Bay Area and started training to become a computer programmer. “To me, it was, ‘Do I just sit here on my hands and hope that I have a job in the next two years, three years, five years?’” Mr. Wright said. “The answer was, ‘Absolutely not.’”

Then there is the sizable cohort of restaurant workers who, during the uncertainty of the pandemic and ambiguity around reopening, evaluated the cost of living in the urban areas where they worked. Many have moved back to their hometowns. As an example, a spokeswoman for Crafted Hospitality, the company that operates the chef Tom Colicchio’s restaurants, said that a whopping 80 to 85% of the group’s kitchen employees have moved out of New York City.

And then there are those who may be reluctant to take up or return to restaurant work. Not only have many of us spent the last year with a smaller social circle, given the health risks that some studies have linked to serving customers, particularly indoors, some employees are not ready to return to a people centric work environment.

Incentives need to meet soar in demand
Despite high levels of employment, the pandemic highlighted the volatility of the restaurant industry. With diners who have eaten at home for a year feeling increasingly liberated by vaccines and restaurants eager to get back to normal – the pressure is on to fill vacancies. Some owners and operators are getting creative in the hope of luring some workers back, from offering bonuses, to paying for the commute to work and pay higher wages. However, restaurants say they need state and local leaders to step and organize return-to-work incentives in order to keep up with a surge in sales amid a broader U.S. economic recovery.